The greek myths



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In Artemis, the severely virginal huntress, we witness the existence of woman as hunter-(gatherer) without the responsibilities of reproduction. This would be entirely understandable in a world which was short of food supplies, where the getting of victuals was more important than the begetting of new mouths to feed. Artemis is fossilized somehow at this ancient stage of development, and in the world of Classical myth, she is a strange and rather outree personality. She is often involved in the death of young male hunters, she is clearly dangerous and yet must be propitiated on many occasions, since in the forest and hunting world she cannot be avoided. As long as deep forests persist, she is real, a sign of the connection between man and the prey he needs to survive, but when hunting disappears and animals are bred for meat, she becomes a symbol of ingrown virginity, even more dangerous. At some ancient date her hunting role must have been real, and perhaps the Amazons are her only historical descendant.
Like Artemis, some women had a marked aversion to sex.. Atalanta's story is well known, how she rejected every suitor by outrunning them, until one dropped "Apples of the Hesperides" as he went, which she stopped to gather, and so lost the race and presumably her virginity. The story tells us something about the ancient art of running, which must have preceded Greece by millennia in the service of Neolithic hunters. Only recently has the world re-discovered long distance running, to be surprised at the naturalness of this ancient activity for large numbers of men and women. The stuffy Roman 'incessus',. which was a kind of pompous, gliding gait suitable to formal Quirites and the ancient businessmen of the world, created a staticness of personal stance which stayed with the world for centuries, while only folk dance retained real body movement.
The "Apples of the Hesperides" cannot be positively identified, but the phrase makes it clear than new kinds of fruit were being imported into Greece proper from outlying areas, even from as far west as Spain. We have some evidence here for l) fast sea transportation, since fruit rots quickly, 2) for other strains of fruit being produced in the West Mediterranean Basic, strains not found in the East, and 3) for a specific kind of fruit so striking in its appearance that a shrewd, male-phobic girl could be taken in by their striking appearance . One thinks of oranges, found since the fifteenth century in Spain, which produced a striking impression when first imported into central Europe., and were not eaten, but reserved as the playthings of bishops and royalty.
Hestia is formally recognized as the goddess of the hearth, she is a deity who presides over fire, but only the kind of fire which is used in the preparation of food. Her role is certainly more ancient than any of the deities we have been discussing, since we know from carbon-datable remains that fire was used at an extremely early date in human history for campfires, which are primarily used for cooking, although they are also used for warmth and frightening wolves and felids away from the mouths of man's caves at night. It seems strange that nobody thought of associating Hestia in a marital pair (like Aphrodite) with Hephaestos, but the use of fire for extracting ores and working metals was of a much later date, while the fire-hardening of wooden spearpoints, as was still recently done in Africa, is too marginal to deserve a special presiding deity. Hestia remains as custodian of hearth and family life, naturally enough, since in historical times each house, and a designated hall in each town, and the special facilities at Delphi and Olympia kept fires burning continually. At some ancient time fire was found burning in nature, taken from burning grasslands, and preserved as precious, since there was no easy way of reproducing it anew. The story of Prometheus tells about divulging fire to men, against the will of Zeus who apparently wanted it kept for his special priestly guild to dispense. At the very end of Odyssey Book 5, when Odysseus, wet and beaten by the seastorm, finally crawls under a thick bush, Homer compares this act of preserving life and body heat to that of a man who lives in a far distant country dwelling, where he must go far to get a new light if his fire should fail. Whatever the actual state of fire-production at Homer's time, there seems to be no knowledge of how spinning a stake into a dry board, or striking iron on flint could produce flame. Originally the light of the fire was (as it was for Odysseus) like the warmth of life itself.
Hestia is a ubiquitous goddess, since there was a fire in every farmhouse in Greece, but she is also in a minor way a deity of fire, with her role transferred to home and the purity of family life. With typical conservatism, the Romans at a much later date commemorated the finding and preservation of fire by the rites of the Vestal Virgins, which commemorate something once very important to human existence. All in all, Hestia represents the conversion of Woman from procreator to householder and family cook, a change of function which is bound to happen in the proliferating world which Aphrodite creates.
Dryads are female deities who are associated with trees. Each Dryad or Hamadryad exists in relationship to an individual tree, and is respected and venerated as the life force in that tree. The concept of tree life is holy.- - - -The name Dryad is derived from Gr. 'drus' which is an oak tree. The word in the same linguistic format appears in the term Druid, a Celtic priest related to tree life force, but with other political and administrative overtones in the historical period. - - - - In Greek and Latin the tree names may be masculine in form, but are always considered feminine in gender; this is partly owing to their composite and all-embracing nature, since trees are (to humans) composed of many parts from root to leaf, but there is also a feeling for femaleness in trees as the ancients see them.- - - -The important thing to note is that in a time when people venerate trees and endow them with a female deity. they have not arrived at a stage of civilization at which trees are seen merely as lumber. When this has occurred, Aristotle can speak of 'hyle" ("wood") as the basic material for constructing the world, i.e. "matter", and the Romans can use the term 'materies" for matter, or building material as such. (American lumber yards are still sometimes called Material Companies.) Wood as a construction material, especially as it becomes costly and valuable, is different in nature from wood on the live root or trees as biological miracles of design and evolution, home for "spirits" of some spiritual importance. - - - -All the myths of Dryads and Druids ante-date the larger growth of mega-societies, which in turn learn to use trees as a source for wood and nothing more. This is a constant danger to expanding societies, they see things only in consideration of their uses, exactly as Pliny the Elder in discussing biology, starts his list of animals with the chicken, goat, sheep and cow, which he assume are specifically created for Roman use. Primitive peoples are much more sensitive.
The nymph Eidothea, whose name comes from 'eidos' which is "appearance; a form, a "form"(Plato)", is the daughter of Proteus, whom we will deal with later. Her aid to Menelaos is not important, but her father's infinite changeability of forms, so that nobody can pin him down on anything, true of false, is most interesting. See: Proteus.
A curious example of a semi-divine heroic personality in the making is found in the scene in Euripides' play in which Alcestis is preparing for her departure and death (Euripides Alcestis ll.....). A servant relates in a tone of exaggerated adoration the exact stages by which Alcestis prepared herself for the death-ritual, how she bathed, what garments she drew forth from cedar smelling chests, with what face and manner she conducted herself. Bursting into tears, she slips back into humanness, then rights herself and calmly says farewell to each weeping servant in the receiving line. An emotional tone is maintained throughout this remarkable passage, which is intent on describing the "last moments" of a lady about to be sanctified. The whole passage is remarkably similar in tone to Plato's portrayal of the last moments of Socrates, and both descriptions are constructed on the pattern of divification of an ordinary person, who is raised before our very eyes to the rank of a blessed semi-divine being. We are not surprised by the religious tone used in describing Socrates last hours, since Socrates is in terms of the West's appreciation already a partly holy man, but since the obscure Saintette Alcestis is not a part of our intellectual history, her case seems more sudden and strange. Euripides apparently also thought this sanctification a little odd, since in the denouement of the play, he reverses the whole procedure and has her come back hale, hearty and quite alive to her amazed household. He seems to enjoy the role of first creating a saint our of a dying woman, and then creating a real woman in place of the saint, merely as a playwright's change of mind. But if he can do that, he can also dispense with holiness also, and that is what happens to the creation of religious figures in the ensuing centuries.
Chapter 3
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Domestication of Animals.
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In the last hundred years we have so completely replaced the horse as a means of locomotion and a source of power, that we have forgotten how really necessary he was to our civilization. The term "horsepower" is retained as a sepulchral reminder of a remarkable animal who helped us for at least a dozen millennia in becoming what we are. The formulae which we still use, such as 750W + 1 Electrical HP, or 550 Ft. Lbs. per Sec., give little idea of what the horse once was, for he carried man on his back at a speed otherwise unthinkable, he alone or in teams hauled loads of twice his body weight, he pulled plows through sticky clay fields, turned grain millstones by the hour day and year, and when times were bad he was even acceptable, if not delicious to eat. His hide made boots and a variety of leathergoods, his hooves and hide boiled out glue, and his tail provided the only suitable material for the musician's bow, without which the violin would have stayed a guitar. The horse has rendered us good service, which is why a certain number of the rich and also the poor keep a horse or two around, just for the reminder, since the horse has also learned to be a good companion to man. We have come a long way together.
The taming of the wild horse who roamed the plains of southern Russia and Mongolia must have taken place. at a remote period. We know from study of Przewalski's wild horse which is still found in Mongolia, how different tamed horses are from the wild prototype, and it is reasonable to assume that several millennia were required to both tame and select tamable examples from the wild horse pool. The prevalence of the horse-root in Greek proper names containing the root "Hippo-", is remarkable, but since the taming of horses took place much earlier than Greek times, we must assume that the names go back a great deal further than the Greeks realized.
Achilles was educated by Chiron, a centaur, which places him some time after the domestication of the wild horse, since in the simplest statement, the Centaur represents a unit consisting of horse and rider. Achilles is stated to have been worshipped as a deity by the colonies on the Euxine (Black) sea, an area rich in grain and fish At an earlier date than the period of the Trojan War, he may have had another biography on the plains of what is now Southern Russia, specifically as tamer of wild horses. Achilles is famous for his pair of horses, Xanthus and Balios; horses come from the distant North East and are best raised on open grasslands, which also produce the newly developed grains; however Thessaly in Greece proper is also a suitable area for horses, and this is actually the place from which the myths tell us Achilles came.
If we search for an etymological connection for Achilles' name, we will find in Hesychius under 'acheilos' a form 'a-chilos' "without grass" or "rich in grass". (We are dealing with either alpha -privative or on the other hand -sm- with sonant -m- giving -a-, an intensifying prefix). Cheilos/chilos (long -i-) means "fodder, feed for animals", by itself this etymology would not be convincing, but taken along with horse breeding which is clearly connected with Achilles, it is worth considering. The old view that Achilles comes from Gr. 'achos' "pain" (in view of his sad end) is unconvincing and rather silly. There are no other linguistic approaches to the hero's name, but of course it may be an ethnic name which does not yield to this kind of analysis.
Achilles' mother disguised her son as a girl and thus kept him from war, which would not have been a natural sphere of activity for an horse-rancher; a grass eating Centaur later educated him, and he is mythically connected with horse breeding in the agrarian areas of the Euxine area. In that capacity he requires social connections for passage in and out of the Euxine Sea. After his death Achilles' ghost proposed to Priam's daughter Polyxena (she of "many guests", etymologically) and she was said to have been sacrificed on his grave. It appears that Achilles may not have been just a hero of the wars, but a hero associated with land and agriculture. Recall that he says in Iliad Book I "they (the Trojans) never hurt my crops or bothered my cattle... ", a remark as well suited to a man living on the extended grasslands north of the Euxine Sea, as to one living on the very similar plains of Thessaly.
If Achilles did have connections with the Euxine area, he would have had connections to pass the Bosporos, which would be furnished by Priam's daughter Polyxena, who provides a safe passport for her host and guest.. If Polyxena was slain on his tomb, from what culture does this custom come? It is certainly not Greek, and must point to a foreign influence from some source.
The horse Xanthos, meaning "tawny", one of the two horses of Achilles, was supposed to have been able to speak, thus preceding " Mr. Ed the Talking Horse" of l950's TV by more than two millennia. Communication between the skilled rider and his trained mount is complex and approaches the basic functions of language within a fairly narrow spectrum of situations. The idea that Achilles' horse talked suggests that there could be a special kind of communication between horse and man at that time. Such psychological sophistication points to a late date for the story in the history of the domestication of the wild horse. The stages of development from wild and untamable horse, to tamable and breedable horse, to rideable horse which works closely with man in hunting and even in warfare, to the horse which is so close to the owner that there exists a special bond of communication, by touch, gesture and even mood.... these stages require a great time span, a good handful of millennia. The talking horse of Achilles is the final point in this long process, at which time the man and his horse virtually communicate with each other.
Although this may appear strained to many of us, professional horsemen and women recognize that such communicative situations exists, and this must be one of the reasons for our continued interest in the horse almost a century after it has ceased to be necessary for draft or travel. It is interesting that the father of Achilles' horses Xanthos and Balios was said to be Zephyros, the West wind. When the horse was the fastest thing imaginable, the wind would seem a natural father to him, although the selection of the West wind does not carry a clear meaning, since it has always been assumed that the horse came from the East. However the much earlier cave paintings in central Europe show portrayals of the horse, which was apparently hunted for meat, so we may have a western as well as an eastern source for wild horse herds.
Achilles was not the only hero taught by a centaur, Asclepios was also entrusted to Chiron the centaur for a time, and learned medicine from him. The centaur baby-sitter and pedagogue appears in many myths, for reasons which are not by any means clear. ESP communications have been posited between animals and sensitive humans, especially the very young, and this may be a part of the picture, of which we have only a part. If the horse had an aversion to plants which are poisonous to men, or showed men where sources of salt, a rare material and a necessity to all mammals, existed, stories about the horse's medical knowledge might arise; perhaps there is something more to be discovered in this area.
Another approach to the problem of the medical knowledge of horses, one which seems sounder all in all, is through the development of veterinary medicine. By the time a society has learned how to tame horses, how to breed selected strains, how to do minor surgery on cuts, how to cauterize wounds with a hot ember, and how to castrate the stallion who thus becomes better at everything except breeding.... by that time society has gone a long way to developing the rudiments of basic veterinary skills. This skill may have outstripped human medicine at some period, and then the magic which surrounds horse-medicine can be switched from the doctor to the horse. The sensitive veterinarian would even sense, or feel he was sensing, information from the horse pertaining to what he should prescribe, and such closeness between horse-doctor and horse would be seen as "horse-medicine" to outsiders, who could easily generate the myth of the medical horse.
Jason was a central figure in this new-frontier drama, he was sent from his home in northern Greece to be cared for at a time of troubles by the centaur Cheiron. "Centaurs" are the first reaction of people who have no experience of horses, in their first viewing with a horse-borne rider, who is assumed to be one with the animal, as his practiced seat and integrated body motions imply. The fact that Jason is entrusted to a Centaur, who does not again appear in the Argonautic myth, implies that horses are already well known and constitute an old technology which is safe and respectable. The great number of Greek personal names which have the '-hippo-' "horse" root, points to the impact which horsebreeding must have had on the Greeks when horses were first introduced from the East.
Bellerophon's story is complicated. Having killed a local hero by mistake, he fled to Argos where the king received and forgave him his sin. But the king's wife fancied him, and when he refused her favors, told the king he had tried to seduce her. Bellerophon was then sent into the imminent dangers of warfare, which were intended to kill him. Riding Pegasos, the winged horse, he fought and killed the monster Chimaera, fended off men instructed to murder him, and finally won the desperate king's daughter in marriage., thus becoming a wealthy and royal landowner. At this point bad luck from the gods started to hound him, his son was killed by Ares, his daughter by Artemis, and his attempt to reach heaven on the winged horse was thwarted by Zeus' gadfly, which made the horse throw its heroic rider. From then on it is all disaster and despair, he is last seen " wandering by himself, eating his heart out, avoiding the ways of men" (Homer. Iliad VI 201).
We have here elements of a story about the "super-hero", who fights the super-monster, riding the super-horse to fame and wealth. But his equipment, new and dazzling as it is, ultimately fails him, presumably as it becomes obsolete, leaving the hero a tired and worn-out old soldier, who is finally not acceptable to the very society which had made him a hero. Jason has this same fate, after a lifetime of grand adventure, he is hit on the head and killed by a falling spar, as he sits in his old age under the rotting hulk of his old super-ship, the Argo. Theseus, a parallel type of hero, suffers a similar fate.
In the finale of these stories we see a philosophical reminder about the futility of fame, which Chuang Tzu was warning people about in China in a world which was developing in remarkably parallel ways.. Is it not curious that the three disasters (the death of his son, his daughter, and himself) which crushed Bellerophon came from three jealous deities, Ares, Artemis and Zeus, who "envied" his fame? "Envy of the Gods", meaning envy on the part of the gods (Gr. 'phthonos theon'),was one of the items which Herodotos listed in his analysis of the stages of fate, cautioning us not to overstep human limits; apparently Bellerophon was thought to have done just this.
One suspects that the winged horse Pegasos represents the first reactions of people to the startling speed. of a horse. Since a man walks at three miles an hour, and runs at eight, a horse which can run for short distances at more than twenty-five miles an hour seems to be moving incredibly fast. In fact the only animal that could be compared with him would be a bird., which explained why the epithet "winged" is used so often of horses. Just so the early steam locomotives of l825, traveling at the unthinkable speed of twenty-five miles per hour, stunned the imagination and an early commentator, projecting himself into the remote future, said he could even imagine trains running at sixty miles an hour! After WW II, when we were accustomed to plane flight of around three hundred miles an hour, we marveled at the idea of crossing the "sound barrier", assuming that 600 miles was the theoretical limit, until we left it far behind in the escalating race for speed. The same sense of sheer wonder exists at any brink of speed which man has not yet crossed, the incredible swiftness of a horse would be as unbelievable to an unhorsed society as a jet plane would seem to an isolated Amazonian Indian. It may well be the speed of the horse, rather than their size and appearance, which so intimidated the Aztecs when the Spanish centaurs appeared on their horseless scene.
The story of how Heracles tamed the wild horses is set in the north of Greece in Thrace, where horses may have been successfully bred at an early Greek date, but much later than the original efforts at taming the original wild horse. Horses have been witnessed as early as the period of the European cave paintings, in which they are drawn as small and stocky, and apparently classified along with the other animals which man hunted for food. Remains of horse bones are commonly found among signs of human habitation, and it may be assumed that horses were a regular source of meat for early hunting man. Within the last two centuries tarpans, the untamable, wild horses of the Southern Steppes of Russia, were still found. They have become extinct, but are identifiable as similar to horses portrayed in the cave paintings, and on incised deer antlers. The Mongolian wild horse, known as "Przewalski's wild horse", is still found in the wild state, it is fiercely protective of its independence and its herd, and has been found completely untamable. From some such primitive stock man selected and bred tamable examples, obviously over a long period of time and with much effort.
Upon such a scene Heracles enters, dedicated to the taming of horses "which ate human flesh", according to the later Greeks myth, although this is impossible considering the nature of equine appetite and the complicated stomachs of ruminants which are specifically designed for the digestion of vegetation. It was the humans who were wild and meat-eating, not the horses!. The long history of equine domestication, with the development of valuable specialized breeds suited for everything from draft to speed, is a historical fact. The interesting thing is that Greek myth recognizes that there was previously a wild, unmanageable horse, which some one person, who is nominally called Heracles, did actually tame. It would have been more facile to propose a divine origin for horses, created by special dispensation for Man's use; but Greek myth has an odd way of cleaving to the historical truth, although generally in covert terms.



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